Book Reviews

How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun_ - Doretta LauHow Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?

Nightwood Editions, 2014
117 pp.
Doretta Lau, BFA’01, BA’03

Doretta Lau’s debut collection of short stories How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? is every bit as poetic and cryptic as its title. Themes wander the realm of imagination as well as reality and touch on communicative time travel (when the characters’ future selves text cautionary notes about possible diseases or speculative investments); excessive drinking (more than once); loneliness (ridiculous and resonant); racism (not an abrupt one-off encounter –more so a spectrum of encounters that span the breadth of Canada); young love (as well as old love and an attempt at necromancy); and the missing and murdered women of the Downtown Eastside.

Most stories take place in Vancouver in all its west coast glory but nod to the ugly side of the city. Major urban centres like London, New York and Hong Kong also make appearances. Lau references Canadian artists Glenn Gould, Bruce LaBruce and Jeff Wall, the Chinese poet Li Bai, Chinese silent film actress Ruan Lingyu, and Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. In combination, the themes, stories and references create a global tale that looks at “multigenerational conflict and politically correct resolution” through a new lens. In short, this collection is a contemporary look at a global world.

How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? was shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.


HookedHooked

Passfield Press
262 pp.
Michael Hetherington, LLB’83

If you have ever spent a summer in Vancouver looking for love then the setting and theme of Michael Hetherington’s Hooked will appeal. But if you have ever felt that something sinister lies beneath the surface of the beautiful city and its beaches, Hooked is a must read.

Michael Hetherington strings together a series of absurd and seemingly unrelated details into a plot that is a taut page-turner of a story.

Hetherington’s main character, Adrian, loses his parents to a collision with a tuna truck near Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver. A few months later, on his way to visit friends of his parents, Adrian sees a light in a tower at the Second Narrows Bridge. On the eve of summer solstice, he rows across the channel, climbs the rungs to the tower and finds a naked woman reading by the light of a lamp. Every summer solstice thereafter, Adrian visits the tower. The woman is never there and her absence leaves a hole in the plot that is not filled until 11 years later.

Now aged 30, Adrian’s wrist gets hooked on a fishing line while swimming at Jericho Beach. A young woman named Mandy, whose body is etched in scars, helps him get untangled. What unfolds has a dark underside that surreptitiously upends a seemingly innocuous narrative. The surrounding plot points (a break-in, a jealous ex-boyfriend, two big guys in a rowboat who follow then attack Adrian, and the purchasing of a pre-Raphaelite painting by Millais of two nuns digging a grave in a cemetery) seem unrelated to the safe and staid main character, but Hetherington crafts a tight story, lining up details that accrue to a shocking but understandable ending.


Land Politics and Livelihoods on the Margins of Hanoi, 19820-2010 (Cover)Land, Politics and Livelihoods on the Margins of Hanoi, 1920 – 2010

UBC Press
228 pp.
Danielle Labbé, PhD’11

Land, Politics and Livelihoods on the Margins of Hanoi, 1920 – 2010, is about the suburbanization of Hòa Mục, a village on the outskirts of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Urban planning professor Danielle Labbé explores how civil society can have a “dynamic and transformative” relationship with different ruling powers. The focus here is on the way state and society influence one another. The result is an accessible academic text that inspires reflection on the processes, politics, and economic forces that create urban environments.

The text starts with a look at the ways villagers took advantage of an emerging textile industry to supplement agriculture in the late 1920s. This was a time when agricultural production was considered a “virtuous pursuit” and commerce or trade was “despicable and demeaning.” The new economic conditions of colonialism created an opportunity for villagers to supplement food production with material wealth, thus changing the moral system that existed up to that point. Next, Labbé explores the early years of socialist transformation from 1940 to the early 60s, and the implementation of land reform, agricultural collectivization and the nationalization of industry. Labbé illustrates the ways in which the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was willing to make ideological and regulatory compromises to maintain its legitimacy at a time when the country was having difficulty housing and feeding its people. Post-reform housing development, though supposedly centralized and controlled by the government, became an opportunity for villagers to make and sell bricks because the government could not attract foreign investment to build an urban infrastructure. By 2000, there was a renewed focus on urban development with a focus on higher-density neighbourhoods, parks, schools and public services.

Labbé shows that the relationship between civil society and state regulation hinges on the provision of basic needs such as food and housing and, as a result, land. Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is the idea that land disputes resulting from the urban transition continue to be one of the hottest topics in Vietnam to date, far more burning than the demand for multiparty democracy.


CaribbeanPhilosopherThe Loneliness of a Caribbean Philosopher
and Other Essays

Arawak Publications
119 pp.
St Hope Earl McKenzie, PhD’82

The Loneliness of a Caribbean Philosopher is a collection of essays that explore the importance of philosophy as a discipline and practice. This is not idle philosophizing about reality, existence, knowledge, values and reason, but rather an examination of existing ideas in an attempt to begin a discussion which author St Hope Earl McKenzie hopes will both inspire and nurture great Caribbean thinkers.

McKenzie completed his master’s in English at Columbia University followed by his PhD in philosophy at UBC. He returned to the Caribbean to discover only “a tiny handful of other Caribbean philosophers.” Most, he writes, choose to remain overseas or shift to other studies. In his search for company, McKenzie recalls philosophical ancestors and examines various forms of cultural expression that provide a foundation for philosophical thought in the Caribbean. Thinkers explored include Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey, most noted for his stance on black nationalism; C.L.R. James, a social theorist, historian and journalist from Trinidad; philosopher Frantz Fanon, a political radical concerned with effects of both colonization and decolonization; and writer, poet and literary critic Édouard Glissant. McKenzie also touches on the philosophical underpinnings of Rastafarianism, the creative writing of Lorna Goodison, and the art of Edna Manley, as well as Jamaican proverbs.

All discussions use a rigorous philosophical method and invoke Western thinkers such as Descartes, Bertrand Russell, Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. Thought experiments, such as an examination of the moral effects of dancehall music, make the text engaging. What emerges, though, is not a reiteration of Caribbean philosophy in Western terms, but rather a call for a Caribbean narrative, which McKenzie says is central to historical thinking.

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